May 28, 2009
Designers collaborate on huge Yakima infill project
By DANIEL STETTLER, RAY JOHNSTON and MARK WARD
Special to the Journal
Stettler Design, Johnston Architects and Urbanadd are collaborating on the master plan for the Yakima Mill Pond District, a 212-acre urban infill project in Yakima. The design team is aiming to create one of the first sustainable neighborhoods in the state to be part of the LEED for Neighborhood Development program. The plan integrates multiple uses in a non-zoning-based strategy that encourages diversity and capitalizes on the social equity of adjacent neighborhoods.
The team’s vision also maintains that pedestrians, bicyclists and automobiles must be able to use the site simultaneously; the site’s circulation scheme doesn’t serve one mode at the expense of the others. As a distinctive neighborhood centered on the historic flow of water through the site, the Mill Pond District will accommodate public amenities that draw visitors to downtown Yakima and contribute to the health of hotels, restaurants, small businesses and other private enterprises such as the historic Capitol Theatre.
In 2005, Boise Cascade closed its plywood mill at the northern entrance to Yakima along Interstate 82. This caused hundreds of local workers to lose their jobs and left a 212-acre blight in the urban fabric of the city. The site, adjacent to the Northeast Yakima neighborhood, has since been purchased by a private development group from Oregon and represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the image and economic competitiveness of the Yakima Valley.
The planning team intends to create a sustainable economic driver on the vacant site that will shape the future for generations of Yakima Valley residents. The project’s market analysis suggests that new residential and commercial uses over the next 50 years would increase the city’s property tax base by $500 million, generate $68 million in local sales tax revenues and create 3,900 permanent jobs. This will be most beneficial to adjacent neighborhoods whose residents were considerably affected by the mill’s closure.
The city, along with the current ownership group and countless civic supporters, jointly won the state’s Local Infrastructure Financing Tool, or LIFT program. The project will receive a $10 million award, which will be matched by city and other public sources.
The LIFT program helps municipalities attract private development by deferring an amount equal to the property and sales taxes generated in the district to pay for infrastructure improvements, such as roads and utilities. Further, the brownfield status of portions of the site provides a strong motive for urban improvements and positions the project favorably for federal support.
The valley’s gateway
Yakima lies just across the Cascade Mountains at the confluence of the Naches and Yakima rivers. The Yakima Valley’s agricultural industry flourishes by producing and processing tree fruits, hops, mint, vegetables, livestock, dairy and wine.
Yakima has long been a trading center for the east slope of the Cascades, providing a distribution point between east-west freight routes along Interstate 90 and north-south routes along Interstate 97. The geographic position of Yakima made it an ideal location for distribution of wood products, fruits and other agricultural products.
In recent years the wine industry has gained an important foothold and the valley is now home to more than 40 wineries and more than a third of the state’s vineyards. The sunny slopes and extended growing season of the valley’s foothills provide ideal conditions for producing world-class wines.
Yakima is also a renowned regional, national and international producer of hops. Brewmasters from Munich to Capetown are well aware of this renown.
While Yakima is acknowledged professionally for its superior raw agricultural products, it has yet to fulfill its potential as a recognized international center for exquisite beers and wines. Given these realities, Yakima is in a unique position.
As was typical for numerous small cities during middle and latter decades of the 20th century, many residents left the downtown areas of Yakima for new suburban homes. This flight led to a neglected urban core, now pleading for revitalization. Fortunately, the city was not the beneficiary of any misguided federal urban renewal efforts, and is still receptive to new, inspired planning and development strategies. It also possesses the economic drive and capital to create a new and vibrant gateway to the Yakima Valley.
The Mill Pond site dominates the northeast quadrant of Yakima. Often referred to as “The Gateway to Yakima,” it is just less than a mile long and a half-mile wide. It is bordered on the east by the elevated Interstate 82, which also separates the site from the Yakima River Greenbelt and the Terrace Heights neighborhood. The west and north borders are the serrated edge of a mixed-use/residential neighborhood suffering from poverty and gang activity. To the south, larger-scale commercial uses are mixed with typical downtown businesses.
The site has the potential to infuse Yakima with substantial retail and occupancy power due to its large number of close-to-downtown neighborhoods.
Yakima traffic patterns are blocked by the blight of the site, but will be eased and redirected in the new plan. Circum-city traffic will flow at a surface level through the site and will provide substantial economic development potential. The site is also bisected by a failing railway spur, which the design team and the city agree should be expanded into a new roadway and I-82 interchange.
As if its position in the urban fabric were not enough, the site also provides a gateway to the Yakima River through portals beneath I-82. It offers views of the nearby topographic gap through which the Yakima River flows, along with views of the Cascade Mountains, Mount Adams and Mount Rainier.
The redevelopment of the Mill Pond District is a true urban infill project that will use and build upon existing urban infrastructure within the city’s core area. It will focus on land uses that are fiscally responsible yet responsive to the borders of the site, including: space for the wine and food industries, medium- and high-density housing, large-scale retail, a lifestyle center, incubator office space for research and development groups, automotive dealerships, medical offices and other mixed uses.
The site has also emerged as a prime location for a proposed aquatic center and YMCA facility.
Guiding the design is the concept of a “sustainable community” and the broad range of uses proposed for the site is geared toward this potential. The planning team has focused on “stitching” old and new urban fabrics in order to replace the existing brownfield with a vibrant, multi-faceted commercial and residential district.
Key to the master plan was the site’s inherited water rights from the Yakima River originally used to fill the mill’s log ponds. The old log flume will traverse the middle of the site to serve as an urban walkway bordered by small businesses and restaurants. This log-flume cum urban-walkway zone will integrate vehicular, pedestrian and bicycle traffic in a deliberate attempt to merge transportation modes that are commonly separated.
The scale of new buildings on the site decreases gradually from east to west, beginning with a band of coarse grain, large-scale uses against I-82. The medium-grain walking district along the water channel will house a variety of shops, restaurants, wineries and an outdoor market. The fine-grain multifamily housing and stand-alone retail will stitch the new development with the existing residential neighborhood to the west. The planned aquatic center and YMCA facility will reconnect the site with the Yakima River Greenway.
Overall, the project is a concerted effort to reinvigorate growth in the blighted urban environment of the Yakima Valley. We see in it an ideal opportunity to infuse downtown Yakima with a new vision. This new vision transcends the creation of new areas of high density or traditional retail delivery. It integrates the needs of a sustainable community with the realities of our auto-centric culture. It creates a sense of community and a focus for emerging industries while enhancing housing and economic opportunities in a city poised to evolve with the needs of the 21st century.